Employees with autism – it’s time to destroy the stereotypes

This month is Autism Awareness Month, and to mark it, Darelyn Pazdel urges HRDs to rethink their hiring stereotypes.

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Apr 10, 2023

In case you didn’t know it, April is Autism Awareness Month – an initiative that seeks to highlight, celebrate and recognise the existence of autism, and the role in plays in the rich tapestry of human diversity.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability caused by differences in the brain. People with ASD often have problems with social communication and interaction, and demonstrate having restricted or repetitive behaviors or interests.

People with autism often get anxious or upset about unfamiliar situations and social events; take longer to understand information, and find it harder to think/appreciate how other people may think or feel.

For all these reasons, most of the time, autism is what is often described as a ‘hidden disability’.

You can’t necessarily tell that someone is autistic by the way they look. It’s a condition that people tend to notice through someone’s behaviours. They might require support with things most people take for granted, such as communication, interaction with others, using their imagination, or flexible. Often they can feel overwhelmed by the world around them.

An estimated 5,437,988 (2.21%) adults in the United States have autism. But while this particular number may sound small, but certainly isn’t is the fact that a huge 85% of adults with autism are unemployed according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Why? Well, typically autistic people are misunderstood. For all the things that employers may worry about, they often overlook the significant skills autistic people have.

Research published in Harvard Business Review, for example, suggests that teams with neurodivergent professionals in some roles can be 30% more productive than those without them. The difference is so dramatic that the HBR article is even titled “Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage.”

According to Deloitte, organizations that make an extra effort to recruit, retain, and nurture neurodivergent workers can actually gain a competitive edge from increased – because their teams comprise a diversity in skills, different ways of thinking, and approaches to problem-solving.

Which is all the more reason that in the workplace greater awareness about autism and other types of neurodiversity is desperately needed.

So what needs to be done?

Better news is the fact that social and medical developments of the past three years have exploded our assumptions about how, where, and by whom exceptional work can be done.

A tight job market is also forcing many employers to tap into overlooked populations for talent.

However, working against all this is the fact that typical hiring practices often screen out this talent pool from consideration in the first place.

It means employers/HRDs need deliberate interventions to minimize bias.

Take a bias inventory

HRDs must accept they likely have a bias problem, and take steps to identify it and then minimize it.

The easiest way to do this is by taking a bias inventory – to establish whether you and your teams make assumptions about what people with autism can and cannot do?

There is a reason autism is called a spectrum. No two people with autism are the same.

Yes, there are some frequently observed tendencies that recruiters and interviewers may need to overcome. For example, soft skills like making eye contact, or not being able to do ‘idle banter’. The question HRDs need to ask themselves though, is are these skills really job requirements? Sometimes, but not always.

Learn from experience

The only way to dispel bias is by actively recruiting people with autism, and discovering the real benefits they bring. Companies like Microsoft, Dell, JP Morgan Chase, and others have all experienced the value of welcoming neurodiverse employees into the workplace and are implementing hiring programs specifically to attract these candidates.

Data from JP Morgan Chase’s “Autism at Work” program found that employees who were autistic made fewer errors and were 140% more productive than their neurotypical peers. Recruiting is important because many people with autism make the same assumptions employers do – that they are not welcome to apply.

Try to be skills-focused

The word very word “disabled” is unfortunate, because the prefix “dis” means “not,” and so it creates the impression that this population is without abilities.

That’s why employers need to focus much more on the skills autistic people actually have. Simply asking autistic people open-ended questions – like ‘What do you like to do?’ or ‘What are you good at?’ will help uncover this. Specific skills and strengths assessment tools, like Gallup’s Clifton Strengths, are also useful, especially used with some modifications – such as eliminating the timer, for example, to further remove bias from the equation.

Accommodation doesn’t mean cost prohibitive

It’s worth remembering that all US businesses must, by law provide “reasonable accommodations” for employees with disabilities to enable them to work.

This typically scares employers off, because they think it will be too expensive.

It is not.

The Job Accommodation Network (JAN), a disability employment consultancy, surveys employers regularly about the cost of accommodation, and the numbers have been consistent over the years. It finds the vast majority of accommodations (56%) are actually free, while the rest cost an average of $500.

Don’t discriminate

Ultimately, all employees want unbiased hiring, strengths-based job placement, the freedom to bring their authentic selves to work, accommodations that make them more productive and comfortable, and peer support.

Inclusion best practices are business best practices. The companies that implement them outperform those that do not.

Most inclusive companies already have existing Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) that they can leverage. According to a McKinsey study, support groups for workers with common interests and identities improve community, engagement, allyship, connection, and career growth. “Effective employee resource groups are key to inclusion at work,” the researchers said.

The logic – I suspect – is clear. While many companies have launched impressive DEI efforts, McKinsey rightly argues that “the majority do not have a DEI infrastructure that is equally innovative and set up to advance the company’s overall DEI strategy.”

Are you ready to embrace autism?

Change comes when employers recognize they need to change too.

The 85% unemployment rate is a shocking statistic, but it is not for candidates’ lack of trying. A UK study found that less than a quarter of job seekers with autism disclose it. The reason is simple: fear of being sent home.

So employers need to do better.

But another key take-away should be this: Employees with autism and other disabilities are actually more alike than different from their non-disabled colleagues.

But by embracing those with autism, you company can enjoy a performance boost that inclusion brings.

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